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Hawk stalk

John Ortino, falconer from Alabaster. Photo by John N. Felsher

Ancient practice gives ‘bird hunting’ a different meaning

Perched high in a tree, the predator missed little, but even a hawk’s eyes couldn’t see through wood.

Cleverly, the squirrel maneuvered to keep the tree trunk between itself and its feathered stalker perched in an adjacent tree.

When a person moved under the tree, the squirrel jumped into a leafy nest. This tactic might save a squirrel from a human hunter, but not a hawk. The sharp-eyed raptor immediately noticed the movement and pounced, tearing apart the nest to drag out its prey.

Dubbed the “Sport of Kings,” hunting with birds of prey dates back at least 4,000 years. The sport came to North America with 16th century Spanish conquistadors and thrived all through the colonial period. Today, about 4,000 licensed falconers, including 60 or so in Alabama, still practice their hobby in the United States.

“Originally, falconry was a way to put food on the table,” explains Michael Moore with the Alabama Hawking Association (alabamahawkingassociation.com). “Kings kept falconers who took care of their birds and flew them when the king wanted to hunt. We’re trying to keep the art of falconry alive and pass it on to the next generation.”

Many people today use the term “falconry” to describe any type of hunting with raptors. The word comes from the use of peregrine falcons, the fastest animal on earth, to hunt birds. Fairly common in Alabama at times, peregrine falcons can exceed 200 miles per hour when swooping down on prey.

Falcons typically hunt open ground where they can easily spot flushing birds. In densely wooded Alabama, however, most people use red-tailed or red-shouldered hawks and go by the term “hawkers.”

Michael Moore of the Alabama Hawking Association. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Hawking Association.

“Red-tail hawks naturally prey upon squirrels in the wild,” says Mark Wetzel of Daphne. “When hunting with any bird of prey species, it’s best to fly that bird after what it would normally catch for itself.”

Hawks must be captured first

Hawkers can’t just buy a bird from the local pet shop and start hunting. They must capture and train their own hunting companion. After catching a wild bird, hawkers must gain its trust through food. Once a raptor learns that taking food offered by a human is easier and more dependable than hunting for itself, it keeps returning to its handler, even when released to hunt.

“A wild hawk could fly off at any time, but it’s about building trust in the bird through feeding it,” described Moore from Vineland. “When we release a bird, it follows us through the woods fairly closely. The person actually flushes the game so the hawk can see it. When hunting squirrels, we’ll shake vines to make them jump.”

After catching a squirrel too heavy to lift, a hawk flies to the ground with it. The person rushes to the bird to keep it from devouring the animal and prevent a still-alive squirrel from injuring the bird with its sharp teeth. If a bird eats too much, it won’t fly or hunt. The hawker rewards the bird for the kill with a piece of the animal, but lets it fill its belly after a good day afield.

Some people use owls instead of hawks, but must capture and train them the same way. Naturally nocturnal, owls typically locate game with their incredible hearing. Rather than fly along behind humans, an owl usually remains perched on its handler’s thick leather glove until it hears something interesting.

“Hunting with a great horned owl is a lot different than hunting with a hawk,” Wetzel clarified. “An owl is much more sensitive to noises while a hawk is much more visually oriented. An owl is a lot quieter when stalking its prey and can fly silently.”

Before hunting with any bird of prey in Alabama, a prospective hawker must obtain a falconry permit and go through a certification process. This includes becoming an apprentice to a general or master falconer for two years and passing a written exam.

In Alabama, hawkers enjoy more days afield than traditional hunters. For most sportsmen, the 2017-18 squirrel and rabbit seasons end March 4, but hawkers can hunt through March 31. Some state parks even allow falconers to hunt small game where others cannot.

All other bag limits and laws apply, except falconers also get an “oops” clause. A bird doesn’t know game laws or dates. Therefore, if a bird grabs something illegal or out of season, the hawker can let the bird eat it, but cannot take it.

“After working with a bird, a handler learns to read a bird and predict what it might do next,” Wetzel explained. “We built a bond of trust, but the birds do not love us or have any affection for us, no matter how much we have for them. We bribe them to come back with food, but it’s a lot of fun for me.”

For more information on Alabama falconry permits and laws, see www.outdooralabama.com/resident-commercial-hunting-licenses.

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.